March 30, 1995
Vol. 14, No. 14

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    Obituary: James Coleman, Sociology

    James S. Coleman, University Professor in Sociology and a world-renowned sociologist, died March 25 at the University Hospitals. He was 68.

    Coleman's scholarly career was devoted to the creation and use of new social-science methodology and theory to illuminate major issues of public policy.

    "Exceptional ability, fertile imagination and the courage to go against received opinion and to bear sometimes vicious attacks marked his distinguished career and explain his enormous contributions to the social sciences. But Coleman's interests and influence extended far beyond sociology, the social sciences and, indeed, beyond the academic world," said Gary Becker, University Professor in Economics and Sociology.

    "His main contributions lay in sociology theory -- including the analysis of social change, collective action and rational choice -- the sociology of education, and public policy," Becker said.

    Coleman's early research on schools and schooling helped shape government policy on racial integration and school busing. The best-known product of that research was "Equality of Educational Opportunity," commonly known as the Coleman Report (1966). The study made pioneering use of large data sets to help provide answers to an important group of public-policy issues. One of the study's most prominent conclusions was that lower-class black children benefited academically from being in integrated schools.

    Coleman's later studies compared the relative efficacy of public and private elementary schools. He co-authored High School Achievement: Public, Catholic and Private Schools Compared (1982, with Thomas Hoffer and Sally Kilgore) and Public and Private High Schools: The Impact of Communities (1987, with Hoffer).

    Throughout his career, Coleman never shied away from controversy. He was also known for having the courage to change his stance on issues in light of new data. Subsequent to the completion of the Coleman Report, he analyzed data from cities that had created busing programs as a way of integrating black and white students into the same schools. In 1975, Coleman reported the conclusion that massive numbers of whites moved out of public schools in communities that had implemented busing programs. This conclusion led to one of the more controversial episodes in the recent history of American sociology.

    "Some prominent members of the American Sociological Association moved to have Coleman expelled for daring to reach this conclusion," Becker said. "It was not a fashionable or pleasant scientific finding. Fortunately for the integrity of the association, the move to expel him failed," Becker said.

    Coleman did not back away from his conclusions, despite pressure to do so, Becker said. Despite the controversy surrounding the report, Coleman was elected president of the ASA in 1991.

    Coleman's study of white flight motivated him to consider in greater depth the foundations of social behavior. He spent much of the last two decades of his life working on sociological theory. These efforts culminated in his 1990 book, Foundations of Social Theory. The book, which is already considered a classic, applies a rational-choice approach to social behavior, showing how individual choices are affected by social norms, peer pressure, a desire to emulate leaders and other group influences.

    Together with Becker, Coleman in the early 1980s founded an interdisciplinary seminar at the University on rational choice in the social sciences. The seminar acquired a broad reputation in academia as a center for rigorous discussions of both the strengths and the weaknesses of rational-choice theory in interpreting social, political and economic behavior. In 1989, Coleman founded the interdisciplinary journal Rationality and Society to serve as a forum for interdisciplinary discussion and debate of these issues.

    Other work by Coleman included heading a research team in 1980 that launched the largest American survey ever conducted on the effects of schooling. The study, "High School and Beyond," continues to be conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University. The survey follows 75,000 people who were sophomores and seniors in high school in 1980 and examines how their education affected their lives and careers.

    "Coleman's scholarship and active engagement with social issues exemplified his view of the role of social scientists in contemporary democratic societies," said Charles Bidwell, the William Claude Reavis Professor in Sociology. "Like most of the great sociologists of the 19th and early 20th centuries, Coleman's commitment to his field was moral. For him, social science could not be justified merely as an intellectual exercise. Rather, it had to prove its worth by showing policy-makers how to design legislation that would improve social welfare."

    Coleman was a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Education and the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. From 1970 to 1973, he was a member of the President's Science Advisory Committee.

    He was the author of nearly 30 books and over 300 articles and book chapters. Among his numerous awards were the Paul Lazarfeld Award for Research in 1983, the Educational Freedom Award in 1989 and the American Sociological Association Distinguished Publication Award in 1992 for Foundations of Social Theory.

    Coleman received his bachelor's degree from Purdue in 1949 and his Ph.D. from Columbia in 1955. He joined the Chicago faculty in 1956 and taught at the University until 1959, when he joined the faculty at Johns Hopkins University to found its department of social relations. He served at Johns Hopkins as professor and chairman of the department of social relations until 1973, when he returned to Chicago as University Professor.

    Coleman is survived by his wife, Zdzislawa Walaszek; four sons -- Thomas of Greenwich, Conn.; John of Madison, Wis.; Stephen of Baltimore, Md.; and Daniel of Chicago -- and a granddaughter, Cora. Funeral services will be private. A memorial service at the University is being planned for May.